Why were the Israelites Chosen? – Intrinsic vs.Extrinsic Holiness

The Jewish people are often referred to as the “Chosen People”, based on references in the Torah that describe the Israelites as singled out by God from among the nations of the world for a specific reason and a purpose. In this lesson we will explore these references and the way several Jewish thinkers approach them to evaluate for ourselves whether this “chosenness” was because of a defining and intrinsic holiness or a potential extrinsic holiness to be achieved.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Deuteronomy (Devarim) 7:6–8

For you are a people consecrated to the LORD your God: of all the peoples on earth the LORD your God chose you to be His treasured people.

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples;

but it was because the LORD favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the LORD freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

כִּ֣י עַ֤ם קָדוֹשׁ֙ אַתָּ֔ה לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּךָ֞ בָּחַ֣ר ה’ אֱ-לֹהֶ֗יךָ לִהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה מִכֹּל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ 

לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק ה’ בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָעַמִּֽים׃

כִּי֩ מֵֽאַהֲבַ֨ת ה’ אֶתְכֶ֗ם וּמִשָּׁמְר֤וּ אֶת־הַשְּׁבֻעָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נִשְׁבַּע֙ לַאֲבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם הוֹצִ֧יא ה’ אֶתְכֶ֖ם בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֑ה וַֽיִּפְדְּךָ֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים מִיַּ֖ד פַּרְעֹ֥ה מֶֽלֶךְ־מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Read more

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How is the Torah story my story?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?
  • How do Jewish texts help me grapple with questions of life, the universe and everything?
  • How is Jewish text a vehicle to help us access connections to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What, if anything, is unique about the Jewish people?
  • What is the basis of the relationship between God and the Jewish people?
  • What does it mean to be a ‘chosen nation’?
  • Why did God ‘choose’ the Jews?
  • How has this status affected Jewish history?

Background for Teacher

Deuteronomy (Devarim) 7:6–11 Context to the biblical text: Throughout Devarim, Moshe calls on the people, just prior to his death, to obey God’s commandments after they enter the Land of Israel. In this section, he warns the Israelites against the danger of complacency because...

Read more

Deuteronomy (Devarim) 7:6–11

Context to the biblical text: Throughout Devarim, Moshe calls on the people, just prior to his death, to obey God’s commandments after they enter the Land of Israel. In this section, he warns the Israelites against the danger of complacency because of their status as the “Chosen People.” He is concerned they may mistakenly think that since they are God’s chosen ones they are automatically entitled to the blessings of the Land. In this context, Moshe offers critical insights into the reasons for, and the meaning of, their election by God and their receipt of the land.

Reason for chosenness in these verses: Moshe tells the people that God did not choose them because of their own characteristics or achievements, and so they should not attribute their election to their own merit. Rather, “it was because the Lord favored you and kept the oath He made to your fathers that the Lord freed you . . ..” In other words, they were chosen by virtue of the fact that God loved them (for reasons unexplained), and by virtue of the promise God made to their forefathers with whom God established a special relationship (covenant). The first utterance of this promise came to Avraham in the form of a charge and pledge recorded in the book of Bereshit. There, God promises Avraham posterity (numerous descendants) and territory (the Land of Israel). These promises are given initially in the context of berakhot (blessings) in which God was to be the benefactor and Avraham the beneficiary (Bereshit 12:1–3). It was to be a one-sided affair: God will be active and Avraham passive.

Chosenness involves Mutuality: In the second instance, God made these promises to Avraham in the context of a berit (ברְִּית), a covenant. A covenant is an agreement, a pact, or a treaty. All of these imply some degree of mutuality (Bereshit 17:3–11). Thus the promises to Avraham required some obligation or responsibility on his part. Chosenness does include privileges, but it also involves duties and responsibilities.

Focus of this lesson: In other lessons in this House the privileges and responsibilities that go with the status of “chosen people” will be explored, as well as what they were chosen for. In this lesson we will focus more on why God chose the Israelites, addressing the question of whether there is an intrinsic holiness that defines membership of the Jewish people and explains its chosenness, or does chosenness indicate an extrinsic potential for holiness dependant on a commitment to personal ethics and behaviour and national mission?

Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, Kuzari 1:95

Background to the text: The Kuzari, completed in 1140, is one of the most important works of medieval Jewish philosophy. Written by Rabbi yehuda HaLevi, the Spanish poet and philosopher, was originally written in Arabic, and takes the form of a dialogue between a rabbi and the King of the Khazars, a mythologized personality who was searching for the true religion for his people to convert to. There is some debate among historians whether there ever was a people called the Khazars who converted to Judaism. 

Yehuda HaLevi’s approach to “chosenness”: In the Kuzari, HaLevi often takes a mystical anti-philosophical stance on many issues, and some argue that this influenced the later rise of the non-rationalist kabbalah movement. The excerpt found here is an example of this. The Kuzari presents an approach to “chosenness” that revolves around a spiritual superiority that is intrinsic to the Jewish people. It traces this ‘spiritual essence’ from the first human created, Adam, who had a perfect soul, passed on to each generation through an elected individual, from Adam through ten generations to Noach, and a further ten generations to Abraham. Abraham passed this ‘spiritual essence’ to the chosen child Isaac (to the exclusion of Abraham’s other children), who passed it on to his child who was ‘chosen’, Jacob (to the exclusion of Esau). Then, for the first time in history, all of the next generation received the spiritual essence, and from there we have a ‘chosen nation’, all descended from the children of Jacob.

Intrinsic Holiness exclusive to Jewish People: According to the Kuzari, the Jewish people have been chosen because of an intrinsic ‘holiness’ and spiritual essence, to the exclusion of all other peoples. Although there are individual Jews who chose in every generation to lead a lifestyle that is antithetical to the Jewish spiritual superiority, they still have the Jewish spiritual essence at their core, and transfer it to the next generation (almost like a spiritual gene that in some generations are recessive). As we will see, there are important medieval Jewish philosophers who disagree with this approach, most important of whom is the Rambam.

Maimonides (Rambam), Iggeret Teiman (Epistle to the Jews of Yemen)

Background to the text: Rambam, also a Spanish medieval Jewish philosopher (who lived a generation after Judah HaLevi)  was arguably the most prominent and important Jewish philosopher of that time. He was a supreme rationalist (he was heavily influenced by Aristotelean and Arab Muslim philosophy) and was often in opposition to the more mystical approach taken by the Kuzari.

This quote comes from a series of communications between the Rambam and Yemenite Jewry in 1173/4. The letter was in response to a letter he received from a rabbinic leader in Yemen, Rabbi Ya’akov ben Nathanael ibn al-Fayyumi, who asked his advice in light of the religious persecution facing the community, and the rise of a false-Messiah who was preaching a syncretistic religion combining Judaism and Islam. In the letter Rambam encourages the community to continue their strict adherence to Jewish custom and law, explaining that this is the essence of what makes Jews different from other nations, and is the basis for their position as a “chosen people”.

Extrinsic Holiness through performance of mitzvot: In effect, Rambam explains that the only thing that distinguishes the Jew from the non-Jew is the mitzvot they were given by God, as a blessing because of the relationship and covenant God had with the forefathers. This is an extrinsic holiness dependent on commitment to the observing of the commandments and fulfillment of the people’s side of the covenant. 

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Traditional Views of Jewish Chosenness

Jacob’s summary of Halevi’s position on Chosenness: Jacobs presents an overview of the positions we have seen on chosenness, of Rabbi Yehudah HaLevi and the Rambam. She emphasises that for HaLevi, “the Jews are inherently different from other people.” What makes them different is this quality God had placed in the first human being and was inherited by some of his descendants, including Avraham. It is only by virtue of the Israelites possessing this quality that God established the covenant with them. The Israelites have no active role in entering the covenant with God. Performance of the mitzvot does not assure a Jew a role in the covenant, it only helps enhance the “divine quality” inherent in the Jew.

Jacob summary of Rambam’s position on Chosenness: Rambam makes very little mention of the idea that the Jews are chosen. Several of his positions about the status of the Jew relative to a non-Jew become clear when studying his writings, and Jacobs alludes to two of these in this text. The first is that Avraham was selected by God because Avraham first discovered God. It could have been anyone, but it happened to be Avraham, and this led to the selection of his descendants, the Israelites. A second position referred to here by Jacobs is the idea noted repeatedly by Rambam in his writings that any person, whether Jew or non-Jew, can attain the highest spiritual levels, even reaching the level of prophecy. He does not see the Jew as having any inherent quality to set them apart from the other peoples of the world. It is only through their performance of the mitzvot that they actualize their being the “Chosen People.” 

As Rabbi Micah Goodman puts it, for Rambam, it is not that Jews are superior to other peoples, it is that the Torah, with its mitzvot, is superior to other systems of law and faith. 

Summarizing the debate: Jacobs summarizes the debate succinctly by stating that “the Jews are the chosen people either as a result of a unilateral – and seemingly arbitrary – divine decision, or as the result of an active decision on their part to initiate a relationship with God.” This active decision was first demonstrated by Avraham when he chose to respond to God’s call (Bereshit 12:1, 4). 

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • What is a Jew? This video explores what it means to be a Jew. Is being a Jew a religious, national or racial or cultural identity? As Rabbi Spiro says in this video, it is all of those except a racial identity. Perhaps the best term to describe what it is to be a Jew is to be part of a “people” and the word “peoplehood” has become more and more common to describe what keeps Jews connected to each other. It can be argued that this notion of “peoplehood” was born in the covenants between the Israelites and God, including the notion of the Jews being a “chosen people” as stated in the bible and featured in this lesson.
    • Four corners: on 4 large pieces of paper write or print the words Religion, Race, Nation, Culture. Stick the posters in the four corners of the classroom, and ask your students to stand in the corner in which they think the correct term for what it means to be a Jew is found. If they are struggling between 2, you may want to allow them to stand in between the 2 (or even 3 or 4).
      • If you have to run this class online remotely you may wish to use the Big Paper learning strategy to adapt this activity.
    • Ask for volunteers from each corner (and any undecided) to articulate their position.
    • Show the video.
    • Now ask your students if they would like to change where they stand between the 4 corners. If any have changed their positions ask them to explain why and allow the discussion to develop for a short while. 
    • Explain that in this lesson you will be exploring opinions on what it is that makes the Jewish people a people. This may include approaches to this question they may not agree with or like. Prepare them to respectfully voice their opinion and respectfully listen to others (including the sources that are brought).

Ask your students to create a Gaffiti Wall (either real or virtual – see here for ideas how to do this) or a word cloud (see here or here for platforms to use) using words that describe what all Jews are. Follow up with a class discussion on if there is anything that makes Jews unique and different from the rest of humanity. Introduce the concept of “chosenness” and how the Torah describes the Jews as “treasured” or “chosen” to God. What do they think this may mean and how does it manifest itself in Jewish history and in their lives?

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  • The first text, one of the biblical sources for the concept of a “chosen people”, doesn’t use a hebrew word that means “chosen”, but rather סְגֻלָּ֔ה which is translated here as “treasured” (probably because the root of the word means a precious stone). There are many questions that need to be asked to understand these verses:
    • What might a “treasured” people mean?
    • Why do you think this term has become translated as “chosen people”?
    • Why do the verses say the Israelites are treasured/chosen to God?
    • Did the Israelites during biblical times need to do anything to earn this name/relationship with God?
    • Do following generations need to do anything to be included?
  • The excerpt from the Kuzari may well be troubling for some of your students, as it describes a kind of spiritual DNA that Jews possess (to the exclusion of non-Jews, and elsewhere he explains even converts to Judaism do not possess this fully) and space in the classroom discussion for critiquing this text (as well as placing it in its socio-historical context which can explain why it is troubling to modern ears). The following questions may help your students navigate the text:
    • Does the Kuzari explain why God chose this nation?
    • Does the Kuzari explain how Jews are distinct from the rest of humanity?
    • Does the text describe chosenness as an intrinsic worth of the Jews, or something extrinsic that must be earned?
    • What does this text say about non-Jewish people?
    • How does this text make you feel? Does it resonate and is this the way you see membership of the Jewish people?
  • The Rambam takes a radically opposing approach – there is nothing intrinsically different about Jews and non-Jews. The thing that distinguishes Jews is their special relationship with God, based on a covenant that has two side. Jews must keep their side (the mitzvot) to benefit from the relationship. This is an extrinsic distinction, and one dependent on behavior. The same questions as above could be useful to explore the text, and by using the same questions the distinctions between the two thinkers will be emphasized:
    • Does the Rambam explain why God chose this nation?
    • Does the Rambam explain how Jews are distinct from the rest of humanity?
    • Does the text describe chosenness as an intrinsic worth of the Jews, or something extrinsic that must be earned?
    • What does this text say about non-Jewish people?
    • How does this text make you feel? Does it resonate and What does the text say about Jews who don’t observe mitzvot? 
  • Rabbi Jacobs summarizes the two opposing positions, and emphasizes the passive nature of the Jews in this role and the intrinsic qualities of Jews according to the Kuzari, and what the position of the Rambam implies about non-Jews, the lack of distinction between Jews and non-Jews (apart from the extrinsic relationship with the mitzvot), and why Abraham (and therefore his descendants) were chosen for this opportunity/role. The following questions could help your students consider these points.
    • According to Rabbi Jacobs, were the Jews passive or active in the two texts we studied?
    • What differentiates Jews from non-Jews according to Rabbi Jacobs reading of the two texts?
    • How does she explain Rambam’s opinion of why Abraham was chosen for this role?
  • Divide the class into two groups (if the groups are too big for group work then 4 or 8 groups) and give one group the position of the Kuzari and the other the position of the Rambam. If you prefer to learn the texts as a whole class (or in chavruta pairs) then do this first, or the text could be learned in these groups. 
    • Ask the students to formulate an argument for what it means to be a “chosen people” based on the position they have been allocated (even if they do not agree with it). 
    • A spokesperson from each group will then have an opportunity to present their position. 
    • Then give each group an opportunity to ask follow-up questions to the other group(s).
    • If you have time you could ask the groups to switch positions and argue the other position.
    • Finally, allow some time for a full-class discussion with students expressing their own opinions and feelings on the two texts they have learned.